It’s widely known that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has been profligate with the agency’s resources and may have violated certain ethical standards along the way. A recent report suggests that Pruitt once made an assistant drive around DC looking for a particular type of lotion given out at the Ritz Carlton, and he has apparently made people do his dry cleaning.
According to some sources, Pruitt has been named in 10 different scandals. Perhaps most worrisome is the fact that he rents his apartment from the wife of a lobbyist with whom Pruitt has worked as head of EPA. Though these scandals bear some notice, it is worth highlighting that a slew of other stories have been buried in the news cycle – stories pertaining to major public health concerns and the overall wellbeing of the environment.
For instance, the EPA recently released data suggesting that nearly a quarter of the coal-fired powerplants in the US have been dodging EPA regulations using an arcane 1977 loophole. According to the loophole, plants built prior to 1978 do not have to implement pollution-reducing technologies, at least until the plant is retired or renovated. The data revealed that 145 coal plants around the country have failed to suppress their sulfur dioxide (SO2) – 107 of those plants were constructed before the 1978 cut-off.
John Walke, a former attorney for the EPA and leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air Project, took issue with the agency’s apparent negligence: “Broad industry trends provide no consolation to families living next to a plant without [controls],” he said. “If EPA is taking steps to make that situation worse … then that’s reckless and counter to the mission of the agency.”
New Source Review
The EPA has turned its head, ignoring the fact that hundreds of plants have made alterations that would require a New Source Review – a review that would update the older plants’ regulatory status. Those plants have not been subject to this review. As a result of the EPA’s (seemingly willful) ignorance, plants without scrubbers – the SO2 suppressing device required by EPA rules – account for 44 percent of SO2 emissions, while only making up 17 percent of the total coal-sourced power supply.
Industry executives are loath to install scrubbers because of the immense costs. It can cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars to implement these technologies and the related procedures.
Pruitt is by no means a neutral bystander, having issued two separate guidance documents making it easier for companies to dodge regulations. The first, issued in December, specifically asks regulators – both state and federal – to trust industry executives’ pollution estimates, effectively eliminating objective oversight of SO2-producing facilities. Another related memo posits an interpretation that would effectively limit the number of permits granted to fossil fuel companies.
According to the EPA’s own website, it doesn’t take long for SO2 to produce negative health effects in individuals. Short-term exposure can cause respiratory issues, and according to Edward Avol of the University of Southern California, even small quantities of sulfur dioxide can result in asthmatic effects. What’s more, plants are generally built near poorer neighborhoods where the denizens are very often people of color.
Pruitt has only continued his salvo against environmental regulations, attempting to fundamentally change the way the EPA analyzes the costs and benefits of certain regulations. According to the current EPA administrator, “[T]he previous administration inflated the benefits and underestimated the costs of its regulations through questionable cost-benefit analysis.” Pruitt and his acolytes claim that the Obama administration pumped up the “social benefits” in its analysis. As a result, conservatives have argued for a long time that the regulations cost way too much money.
Redistributing the Wealth
But as noted by David Roberts of Vox, the previous administration’s inclusion of social benefits was necessary in order to account for the distribution of costs across classes. Forcing companies to pay for better technology takes the onus off the poor, marginalized folks who suffer and must pay for their medical bills out of their own pocket. In a sense, under Obama, the burden shifted from the poor to the wealthy. And now, under Trump and Pruitt, the scale has been tipped back in favor of the rich.